George Weigel. No Homophobia: A Reminder About the Totalitarian Temptation


“Americans will say, “It can’t happen here.” But it can, and it may. Before the ink was dry on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature on New York’s new marriage law, the New York Times published an editorial decrying the “religious exemptions” that had been written into the marriage law at the last moment. Those exemptions do, in fact, undercut the logic of the entire redefinition of marriage in the New York law—can you imagine any other “exemption for bigotry” being granted, in any other case of what the law declares to be a fundamental right?”

Source: Ethics and Public Policy Center

National Review Online

The Washington Post‘s culture critic, Philip Kennicott, recently took to the pages of his paper to note the “cognitive dissonance” between ingrained “habits of homophobia” in American culture, on the one hand, and a recognition that “overt bigotry is no longer acceptable in the public square,” on the other.

As an example of those who resolve this dissonance by holding fast to their homophobic prejudices, Kennicott cited Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who had remarked on the similarities between the Empire State’s recent re-definition of marriage and the kind of human engineering attempted by totalitarian states; NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez and I came into Mr. Kennicott’s line of fire for displaying similarly “virulent homophobic rhetoric” in articles defending Archbishop Dolan’s suggestion that, in the marriage debate, the totalitarian temptation was very much in play.

Philip Kennicott’s line of attack nicely demonstrates the truth of Oscar Wilde’s famous observation that the only way to rid oneself of temptation is to yield to it. For crying “homophobia” is a cheap calumny, a crypto-totalitarian bully’s smear that impresses no serious person.

But for charity’s sake, let’s assume here that Mr. Kennicott simply had a bad day and might actually be interested in the arguments of those he and others have dismissed as bigots. Perhaps I can illustrate the point Kennicott’s targets were making by reminding all parties to this dispute of what marriage under totalitarianism was like—a subject I happened to be discussing with a Polish couple who were preparing to mark their 47th wedding anniversary when the Kennicott article appeared.

Under Polish Communism, Catholic couples—which is to say, just about everyone—got “married” twice. Because marriages in the Catholic Church were not recognized by the Communist state, believers had two “weddings.” The first was a civil procedure, carried out in a dingy bureaucratic office with a state (i.e., Communist-party) apparatchik presiding. The friends with whom I was discussing this inanity are, today, distinguished academics, a physicist and a musicologist. They remembered with some glee that, a half century before, they had treated the state “wedding” with such unrestrained if blithe contempt that the presiding apparatchik had had to admonish them to take the business at hand seriously—a warning from the über-nanny-state my friends declined to, well, take seriously.

The entire business was a farce, regarded as such by virtually all concerned. Some time later, my friends were married, in every meaningful sense of that term, in Wawel Cathedral by a Polish priest whom the world would later know as Pope John Paul II.

Americans will say, “It can’t happen here.” But it can, and it may. Before the ink was dry on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature on New York’s new marriage law, the New York Times published an editorial decrying the “religious exemptions” that had been written into the marriage law at the last moment. Those exemptions do, in fact, undercut the logic of the entire redefinition of marriage in the New York law—can you imagine any other “exemption for bigotry” being granted, in any other case of what the law declares to be a fundamental right?

Either the recently enacted New York marriage law is nonsense, or its religious opponents are bigots whose prejudices should not be given the protection of law. To use Mr. Kennicott’s sociological term of art, it’s a matter of cognitive dissonance to try to have it both ways. In any event, pressures like that of the Times and its activist allies will continue, for the logic of their position requires them to try and strip away religious and other exemptions from recognizing “gay marriage.”

Should those pressures succeed, the Catholic Church will be forced to get out of the civil marriage business—as it has been forced in some states to stop providing foster care for children and young people, thanks to the pressures of the really phobic parties in these affairs: the Christophobes. Priests will no longer function as officials of the state when witnessing marriages.

So what will Catholics and other adherents of biblical morality do (for evangelical pastors are just as much at risk from the Christophobes as Catholic priests)? They’ll have a civil “wedding” that will be a farce, just like that endured by my Polish friends in 1964. And then they’ll really get married in church.

Thus the net effect of the pressures now being mounted by the Times and others—a redefinition of “marriage” that puts Christian communities and their pastors outside the boundaries of the law for purposes of marriage—will be to reduce state-recognized “marriage” to a sad joke. One can even imagine a whole new genre of dark humor, of the sort represented by “Radio Yerevan” and other brilliant exemplars of anti-Communist raillery, emerging. That might be fun, but it’s a sad price to pay for this state attempt to redefine reality.

And that brings us to the totalitarian temptation. As analysts running the gamut from Hannah Arendt to Leszek Kolakowski understood, modern totalitarian systems were, at bottom, attempts to remake reality by redefining reality and remaking human beings in the process. Coercive state power was essential to this process, because reality doesn’t yield easily to remaking, and neither do people. In the lands Communism tried to remake, the human instinct for justice—justice that is rooted in reality rather than ephemeral opinion—was too strong to change the way tastemakers change fashions in the arts. Men and women had to be coerced into accepting, however sullenly, the Communist New Order, which was a new metaphysical, epistemological, and moral order—a New Order of reality, a new set of “truths,” and a new way of living “in harmony with society,” as late-bureaucratic Communist claptrap had it.

The 21st-century state’s attempt to redefine marriage is just such an attempt to redefine reality—in this case, a reality that existed before the state, for marriage as the union of a man and a woman ordered to mutual love and procreation is a human reality that existed before the state. And a just state is obliged to recognize, not redefine, it.

Moreover, marriage and the families that are built around marriage constitute one of the basic elements of civil society, that free space of free associations whose boundaries the just state must respect. If the 21st-century democratic state attempts to redefine something it has neither the capacity nor the authority to refine, it can only do so coercively. That redefinition, and its legal enforcement, is a grave encroachment into civil society.

If the state can redefine marriage and enforce that redefinition, it can do so with the doctor-patient relationship, the lawyer-client relationship, the parent-child relationship, the confessor-penitent relationship, and virtually every other relationship that is woven into the texture of civil society. In doing so, the state does serious damage to the democratic project. Concurrently, it reduces what it tries to substitute for reality to farce.

That’s what those whom Mr. Kennicott deplores as virulent bigots were trying to point out.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.


  1. Some opponents of recent legislation allowing same-sex marriage may in fact be bigots. This wouldn’t surprise me at all. But when has it ever been otherwise that bad men have been attracted to good causes for their own selfish ends? Our is after all a fallen world populated by sinners.

    The political, and moral, point that Weigel argues here is an important one. Try as I might, I cannot re-make myself according to my own desires without at the same time crippling myself and those around me. It this what Adam and Eve attempted in the Garden and it is precisely from this, my own willfulness and desire to be god in place of God, that Christ comes to redeem me. And all this is an anthropological insight central to the biblical tradition.

    In the first centuries, the Church combated heresies about God. Today we are called to combat not simply heresy about God but about what it means to be human. For better and worse, ours is an anthropological age. Culturally we are struggling to understand ourselves and what it means to be human. Is my identity grounded in a shared and immutable human nature? Or am I rather free to create, and re-create, myself according to my own will? The latter is the anthropological model that informs recent changes to marriage laws while the former is at the heart of orthodox (and Orthodox) Christianity.

    In Christ,

    +Fr Gregory

  2. Patrick O’Rourke wrote a blog post considering changing the very name of “marriage” should it be needed. I’m not particularly sure that is the answer for the churches with strong pro-homosexual marriage groups (the line can only be drawn on the boundaries of the church, not within it), but it seems to encase a similar point:

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      I read it and concluded he gives up the fight too early just like James does below. The Church is not an alternate universe. It’s the place where what began in Eden is recovered and continues until the revelation of the New Jerusalem. Put another way, the salvation of Christ is not only the salvation of the individual, but the entire world including culture. (Pat. Kyrill and Pope Benedict are quite clear on this.)

      Further, language is critical to the enterprise. Language — words — are the initial interface between God and man. To see how this works in concrete, real-life terms read my essay: When God Speaks and We Obey, Good Things Happen. Note the implicit lesson: God seeks to save not only the Orthodox (or Catholics, or Protestants, or Muslims) but the entire world. What was my point of initial contact with the young man recovering from the drug overdose? The words I spoke. What was his initial point of contact with God in his present circumstance? The words I spoke.

      To see how this works in culture see my essay: One Word of Truth Outweighs the Whole World (and note the ontological inferences, especially how God speaking the world into existence is complementary to speaking the words of the Gospel). I drew those important lessons from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s masterful Nobel Lecture of 1970.

      The language of the moral tradition draws from the well of scripture, the foundational text Christianity and Judaism. We are not to give it up. We are not to let it’s words be misappropriated or stolen, ripped from it proper textual context in order to confuse culture without a fight. Words mean things. When they are misappropriated or stolen we respond courageously, with intelligence and resolve. We do not capitulate just because a bear has growled.

  3. James Morgan :

    In my view one of the problems we are facing in our mostly secular society is that there are a number of definitions of marriage. And for Orthodox and Catholic Christians most of these definitions are incompatible with what the church teaches.

    One way out would be to legally define all marriages (whether serial, hetero or homosexual) as domestic partnerships, which are constituted as contracts between the parties and which convey certain rights and obligations guaranteed by the state. Divorce would be handled in much the same way it is now, as a dissolusion of those same rights and obligations, and consequences relating to property and children.

    The Church, on the other hand, would be free to provide sacramental marriage for its members.

    I frankly (I lived in Hollyweird for almost 30 years!) don’t see a plethora of same sex couples banging on our doors demanding to be crowned in the Mystery of Holy Matrimony.

    Rdr. James Morgan

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      You give up the fight too early, James. Marriage is within the order of creation. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, or even Adam and Eve and Betty.

      Look, baptism is both a death and restoration, a putting off the death of this world and a path towards the Kingdom of God that is also a restoration of primordial Eden. And a marriage, while restored to its proper teleological trajectory in the Church, still exists outside the Church because it exists within the order of creation. That’s why even non-Christian societies reveal monogamous opposite-sex relationships as a cultural norm for the most part and why the traditional relationship went unchallenged in Christian culture for the last 2000 years and even longer in Judaism before it.

      You have inculcated the logic of the redefining marriage crowd and are bringing it into the Church. The Church sanctifies what God created, and He created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. But this truth is written into the fabric of creation. It is not true because you or I believe it, it is true because God created it that way and is thus evident to all who are open to truth to some measure, even those not within the Church.

      Where do we see this? Whenever homosexual marriage is put to a public vote (removed from the courts and legislatures), it is defeated. Thirty states have now passed bans on same-sex marriage.

  4. cynthia curran :

    Well, California passed where you teach the contriubtions of gays/bisexauls and so forth. In high school, now you have to mention that Hadrian had a male lover Antionius when you teach Roman history in world history now.

  5. cynthia curran :

    True, father Jacobse that all non-christian societies never had homosexual marriage.

    • Non-Christian societies still regard homosexuality as a Western import.

      India’s health minister derided homosexuality as an unnatural “disease” from the West at an HIV/AIDS conference, drawing outrage Tuesday from a U.N. official and activists who said the comments set back campaigns for gay rights and against HIV.

      In a hastily called news conference Tuesday evening, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said he was misquoted, though video of Monday’s speech has aired repeatedly on Indian television.

  6. cynthia curran :

    Well, in our society the homosexual debate among christians since been around what the bible states since Protestants in the Republican Party shaped it that way. Also, referrring to the natural order and in the case of the Orthodox cultural tradition is important here. In the Justinian Code, the pairing of male and female among the animal kingdom and them among humans for procreation is the beginning of the defination of marriage.

  7. Fr. Johannes,
    Thanks for reading my post! Forgive me if I made it seem as though I’m throwing in the hat, because the big bear has growled. It is plainly evident that what most people are talking about when they say “marriage,” is a sort of perversion from the get-go. That is the crux of what I was saying. Unless we look at marriage as the God-created sacrament that it is, we will always struggle with its definition.

    “Husband” only means something akin to “permanent boyfriend” in the lexicon of the American youth. Similarly so for “wife.” When we (mistakenly) define marriage by employing only fragments of its true and Holy meaning, we end up with situations like this mess in New York. It would be like attempting to build a full scale replica of the USS Nimitz based on “enormous, floats, carries airplanes…” and so on. When the full plan and detailed blueprint is shredded, folks are left to fill in the blanks. In a relativist, post-industrial and post-Christian society, it follows that the new recreation is more relativist, post-industrial and post-Christian than Christian at all.

    I think we are actually in agreement on the issue of needing to stand up and fight for marriage. Tacky signs on court house laws won’t work. We need to be educated in what the Church teaches on marriage, in order that we might give an “apologia.”

    “We are not to give it up. We are not to let it’s words be misappropriated or stolen, ripped from it proper textual context in order to confuse culture without a fight. Words mean things. When they are misappropriated or stolen we respond courageously, with intelligence and resolve.” – This is essentially the same sentiment that drove me to write that post. I was hoping to spark discussion. I’m glad I found my way here.

  8. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Patrick, I am in Bozeman, MT and will reply as soon as I have some time.

Leave a Reply to Fr. Johannes Jacobse Cancel reply